When the word narcolepsy is said some people get funny ideas of cartoon-like characters in a chase sequence and one of them suddenly falls asleep. This creates a funny situation for the imaginations of many, but in reality it’s no laughing matter. Narcolepsy can ruin a person’s life if it is left untreated. At the very least it can dramatically alter how someone lives from day to day. To understand how narcolepsy affects people, first we must understand what narcolepsy is. So, what is narcolepsy?
Narcolepsy, in general, is a chronic sleep disorder of a neurological nature, which is characterized by frequent, uncontrollable bouts of sleep. These episodes of daytime sleep are sudden, and often cause people to not be able to achieve in life. Narcolepsy has no known cure, but there are medications to help control the symptoms. This sleep disorder, which is mostly undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, plagues an estimated three million people all around the world in this day and time.
To define narcolepsy we must first know what the symptoms of this sleep disorder are and how they affect people living with this illness.
Excessive daytime sleepiness or E.D.S. defines narcolepsy. This symptom can be brought on by insomnia, late nights at the club, too much caffeine, third shirt work or any factor that will keep a person from nocturnal sleep. The number one complaint made by narcoleptic patients is excessive daytime sleepiness, and cataplexy is number two.
Cataplexy is a symptom of narcolepsy that can prove deadly if not kept in check. Cataplexy occurs when a person experiences muscle weakness and/or lack of muscle tone. This loss of muscle tone can result in falls or accidents. Cataplexy has been linked to a deficiency of a protein called hypocretin, which is made in the brain. Patients eventually regain muscle control after the cataplectic attack.
Sleep paralysis is a symptom of narcolepsy that is also a separate sleep disorder in and of itself. Sleep paralysis happens when a person’s brain unhooks itself from their body, which leaves them totally aware, but completely unable to react by movement or speech. This can happen when a person is falling asleep or waking up. If this happens while falling asleep, it’s called hypnogogic sleep paralysis. If it happens while waking up, it’s called hypnopompic sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is almost always accompanied by hallucinations.
Hallucinations are when a person hears strange noises or voices and/or has surreal visions of an extremely vivid nature, all of which are not real. This is very commonly found in patients with sleep paralysis.
Insomnia is related to narcolepsy and other sleep disorders like sleep apnea, as it is a nighttime sleep disorder. Insomnia is the inability to fall asleep, or the inability to stay asleep for any considerable amount of time, which leaves a person vulnerable to narcolepsy.
Some other signs and symptoms that help to round out the definition of narcolepsy are:
- Memory problems
- Lack of interest in activities
- Failed relationships with friends, family and relationships of a personal nature
- Problems with social situations
- Trouble concentrating, especially at school or work
How to Treat a Narcoleptic: Definition of Kindness
People with narcolepsy are just normal, everyday people. Sometimes they may be subject to ridicule by co-workers or jokes by those who do not know and understand what they go through. The symptoms of narcolepsy can take their toll on the health, both physical and mental, of the people unfortunate enough to have this sleep illness.
There are treatments for narcolepsy, both medical and in the home that can give people a new life. The therapy that is done at home or in the personal life is actually a vital part of the treatment plan. These are called lifestyle changes by many. These lifestyle changes are:
- Maintain a regular schedule including meal times, bed times and medication times
- Any episode that happens should be written down in a journal and given to the physician
- Take medications as prescribed by the physician
- Avoid alcoholic beverages, illegal use of drugs, nicotine and caffeine
- Avoid night time employment (graveyard/third shift jobs)
- Tell employers and co-workers about situations pertaining to this condition
- Avoid operating machinery and driving vehicles
- Know what triggers the sleep attacks and avoid those triggers
- Stay healthy by eating nutritious meals and taking vitamin supplements
The list of medications that are used in the treatment of narcolepsy should be segregated into types according to what symptoms they treat. These are stimulants, antidepressants and sodium oxybate.
Stimulants are in fact, used to stimulate the central nervous system. This helps to treat cataplexy and E.D.S. by keeping the brain waves working their way through the central nervous system, which in turn keep people alert and keeps their muscles working. Commonly prescribed stimulants include Provigil and Nuvigil. Stimulants should be avoided if the patient has had a history of mental health issues, as they can produce suicidal thoughts and ideology.
Antidepressants are used in the treatment of cataplexy and hallucinations associated with sleep paralysis. The two most commonly prescribed antidepressants are Fluoxetine (Prozac) and Sertraline (Zoloft). These medications also cause drowsiness, which can be an aid in the nighttime sleep of narcoleptic patients.
Sodium oxybate can be a very dangerous drug if not taken exactly as prescribed by the physician. It is used to treat cataplexy, and sleep disorders such as sleep walking and insomnia. This drug is in liquid form and has to be taken in several small doses. An accidental overdose could send a person into a coma, or in worst case scenario, death.
These narcolepsy definitions should work to help people understand what and how narcoleptic patients go through at times. With proper care, the medications and therapies can work to give narcoleptic patients a better chance at life. Often time’s encouragement isn’t needed, but if you know someone with narcolepsy, give them an encouraging word, and help them to be accepted as you would want to be accepted.